- The Bavli, the Roman East, and Mesopotamian Christianity
Scholarly study of the Persian nexus of the Bavli began approximately a century and a half ago, but this study has entered a new stage of methodological rigor and sophistication during the past two decades. In the tremendous enthusiasm for the study of Bavli in its Persian context, however, some scholars have forgotten the obvious point that it is essential to use all of the cultural contexts at our disposal. The ensuing discussion suggests a few areas where that study is already ongoing and has yielded important results and would greatly benefit from additional research.
One very promising area of comparative study of the Bavli is the literature of the Mesopotamian neighbors of the Babylonian rabbis, the Syriac-speaking Christians. Shlomo Naeh’s seminal 1997 essay on the Bavli’s use of Syriac Christian literature, “Freedom and Celibacy,”1 was a major step forward in literary sensitivity, philological precision, and breadth of scholarly learning. Naeh observed that the rabbinic protagonist of a story in bKid 81b is trying to tame his evil impulse by abstaining from sex. What is remarkable about this story is that the rabbi’s intent includes abstention from sexual relations with his own wife. Naeh observed correctly that while no other character in classical rabbinic literature is depicted in this fashion, it is a common motif in the literature of Syriac Christian sources composed in Mesopotamia, in close proximity to the Babylonian rabbis.2 [End Page 242]
Naeh draws particular attention to a line in the story in which the protagonist’s wife poses as a prostitute and identifies herself. It reads: “I am Ḥeruta and I have returned today.” This line should be the pivotal point in the narrative, but instead it appears to grind the story to a halt. The primary difficulty, observes Naeh, is with the name Ḥeruta—the prostitute’s name has no significant parallel in rabbinic literature, a fact that lead previous exegetes to glide past the passage. Since Syriac is the language of the Babylonian rabbis’ Mesopotamian Christian neighbors, and since it is a neighboring language Babylonian rabbis would most likely have understood, Naeh turns to Syriac Christian literature for help.3 In fact, Syriac is closer to Babylonian Jewish Aramaic, the language of the Babylonian rabbis, than is Palestinian Jewish Aramaic, the language of the Palestinian rabbis, which Babylonian rabbis undoubtedly understood.
The word ḥeruta has a double meaning in Syriac, signifying both “freedom” in the sense of “freedom from the passions, not enslaved to one’s baser instincts,” but also “freedom” in the sense of “free to indulge one’s passions,” “licentious.” Naeh observes that the word ḥeruta is “Janus-faced,” since it means both one thing and its opposite, and the two meanings hold the key to understanding the story. On the one hand the rabbinic protagonist wishes to be free from enslavement to his passions, which is why he wants a celibate marriage, but on the other hand he succumbs to his passions, propositioning a woman he thinks is a prostitute, thereby exposing himself, he believes, as an abject failure. His all-or-nothing mentality makes it impossible for him to view himself as guilty of a relatively minor infraction, and he sees no other alternative but to die.
The fact that the talmudic story ventures outside the rabbinic lexicon and chooses a Syriac Christian term is striking. And it turns out that the phenomenon of “celibate marriages” was practiced and held up as an ideal in the Syriac Christian communities of Mesopotamia. Aphrahat, for example, a fourth-century Syriac Christian author, believes that it is best for Christians to remain celibate, and, short of dwelling with fellow monks in a monastery, the next best thing is to marry but remain celibate.4 Interestingly, Aphrahat claims that Jews criticized Christian practices [End Page 243] of celibacy, believing that sex within marriage was the best lifestyle. The fact that the story in bKid depicts a rabbi in a celibate marriage and takes the trouble to polemicize against the practice suggests that Mesopotamian rabbis as well as Christians engaged in it. The fact...